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by Rebecca Arnold
Rutgers University Press, 2001
Review by Sundeep Nayak, MD on Jul 2nd 2002

Fashion, Desire And Anxiety

‘Fashion colludes in society’s obsession with thinness; the whole process of making and marketing a collection is based upon the production of clothing in the smallest size.’

With incisive observations from a senior London college lecturer in fashion history, Rebecca Arnold hits so many home truths out of the park it is easy to miss the forest (green) for the trees. The prose is artistic enough to act as paintbrush summoning a frisson of paradoxes even as her systematic analyses percolate through our awareness. What was once a symbol of upper class formality is claimed by the conspicuous consumption of gangsters with personal tailors. What segments the uneducated from the educators infuses street credibility upon those who choose to reject it for alternative rebellion. What at once passes for décolletage and dishabille metamorphoses into an empowering symbol for feminine mystique or radicalism. The author has an illustrative example for nearly every point she clearly outlines, describes in slavish detail and then dissects to the bare bones, some of which are clearly visible upon heroines on heroin.

Fashion, Desire and Anxiety is divided into four sections: Status, Power and Display; Violence and Provocation; The Eroticized Body; and Gender and Subversion.

“Status…” deals with the Moebius band like infinite repository of revivals yo-yoing between recidivistic simplicity and excess, not quite sure where the wheel of marketing fortune will ever come to a standstill, and hoping fervently that it will not. Ms Arnold cajoles us to admit to our desire for the power that we believe stylish clothing will confer by the established principles of high-level designer label chicanery. She inveigles us to ponder about consumerism, consolation, communication and confrontation. She seals the indelible symbiotic bond between the fashion and entertainment industries.

“Violence…” is astonishing in its range, from the cool film noir gangster styles to hardcore 'gangsta' rappers of the early nineties. It attempts to categorize social “outcasts” like hippies, skinheads and punks, each clamoring for exclusivity propelled by disenchantment with the establishment. Regrettably, each of these subgroups had unfortunate associations that however successfully delimit their adoption into the fringes of society. The appropriation of the paraphernalia of threat and violence are combined with unequivocal bad taste and dark imagery. Heroin chicks drenched in Opium perfume could only helix down into decadence and decay.

“The Eroticized Body” fragments the littoral between the public and the private as women flaunt sexuality and peddle allure, while being unafraid of doing so. Fashion photography treads gingerly while parading fantastically unattainable lifestyles that at once seem morally suspect yet threateningly inviting. The fantasy element of fashion marketing fuels the desire to desire. Fetishism, excessive displays of skin, and tokenisms of ethnicity push the envelope down the catwalk.

The final chapter, “Gender and Subversion” is a slim weak denouement. Over the years, the unconsummated love affair between the male fashion designer/photographer and his female muse is reincarnated several times over, and the reversal of roles (and obvious nods to gay influences upon clothing) is given short shrift. Androgyny, the drag queen and the plus size woman exist more as ciphers than further grist for the mill. “Dressing Up: Man” is six pages in length – Madonna’s hemlines are longer. Whatever happened to the fashion victim?

The book would have been enhanced (and pricier, and prized more) had it included more full color plates. However, Ms. Arnold is not aiming for the coffee table demographic and may not be more than marginally faulted. Those images not literally included are etched in the reader’s mind’s eye by her vividly constructed crystal lattices, embellished by a historian’s keen perspective. This is truly rich fabric waiting to be mined by you who will never sashay into another trunk show the same way again.

 

Read more in:

q       Vreeland, D: Allure. Bullfinch Press, 2002

q       Schatz H, Ornstein B (Eds.): Rare Creatures – Portraits of Models. Wonderland Press, 2002

q       Hoare S, Baron F (Eds.): Talking Fashion. Powerhouse Books, 2002

q       Yohannan K: John Rawlings – 30 Years in Vogue. Arena Editions. 2001

© 2002 Sundeep Nayak

Dr. Nayak is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Radiology in the University of California School of Medicine San Francisco and his interests include mental health, medical ethics, and gender studies. A voracious reader and intrepid epicure, he enjoys his keyboards too much. He shamefacedly confesses to having possessed a Filofax, Tag Heuer watch and something rather hideous with a gilt Medusa head medallion on it.